As tens of thousands of Iranian students flocked back to university this month, following a two-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic, many were greeted with new restrictions.
The measures, including stricter hijab rules on female students, have triggered protests in at least two universities in Iran. Students have labeled the new restrictions as unprecedented and blamed them on the government of ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi, who came to power in August.
Critics said the measures appear to be aimed at tightening the government’s grip on universities, which have been the scene of political protests in the past. Anti-government sentiment has been on the rise in recent years in Iran, where the economy has been crippled by U.S. sanctions and years of economic mismanagement.
University Turned Into 'Military Base'
Dozens of students at the prestigious Amir Kabir University in Tehran staged a rally on April 24, during which students blasted the new restrictions and warned that they would not allow authorities to impose “Stone Age ideas” at the institution. The protesters also said the university had been turned into a “military base,” with security guards on motorbikes roaming on campus and enforcing the measures.
The rally came after a student at the university was recently given an official warning by university authorities over the length of her sleeves and socks. Another student was prevented from entering the campus because her coat was deemed too short.
Similar restrictions have been reportedly imposed at other universities in Iran, including at the Tabriz University of Medical Sciences. Amateur video posted online on April 28 appeared to show a student protest at the university.
The student union at Tehran University, meanwhile, warned in an April 13 statement against what it said were “frequent disciplinary measures that violated the dignity of students.”
According to a dress code imposed following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women must cover their hair and body in public. Many women have resisted the hijab rule and pushed the boundaries by exposing their hair from underneath their headscarves and wearing short coats. The dress code is enforced more strictly at government buildings and higher education institutions. But before the new measures, the atmosphere at universities had reportedly become more relaxed in recent years.
Sweden-based Iranian political activist Mahdieh Golrou, speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, said the new measures are a signal to students that authorities “have full control over their appearances and their ideas.”
An unnamed student at Amir Kabir University told the Iranian news site Ensafnews.ir last week that the “imposition of these restrictive measures appears to be the policy of new university officials” appointed after the “current government came to power.”
Students at the university told Ensafnews.com that security guards have been roaming around the campus on motorcycles and enforcing the new rules.
“When we hear the sound of motorbikes at the university, we become worried that the security guards will warn us about our appearances,” said another unnamed student, adding that she was given a warning for not fully covering her hair.
“I can’t believe this is [happening] at the university because there were no such things before the coronavirus [pandemic],” she said.
On April 27, the university’s soccer team refused to participate in a local tournament because security guards prevented female students from attending.
Women have been barred from attending soccer matches for decades. Iran's clerical establishment has only rarely allowed women to enter soccer stadiums.
Golrou, who was sentenced to prison in Iran and prevented from pursuing her studies due to her activism, said the new measures are even “tougher” in the provinces.
“Female students are being scrutinized over their nail polish and the length and color of their socks,” she said. “[Authorities] have failed to [fully] enforce these policies in society so they are now hoping to at least enforce them at universities.”
'Concerned About Potential Protests'
Golrou said authorities appear determined to prevent protests at universities amid rising anti-government sentiment.
“Students with a record of political activism have been summoned since the reopening of universities and told not to engage in any such activities,” she said. “This shows that the education and intelligence ministries are concerned about potential protests.”
Alireza Moini, an official at Amir Kabir University, blamed the recent protest on foreign Persian-language media outlets that he claimed had encouraged students to disobey the law. He did not provide any evidence to support his claim. Moini also claimed that the presence of security guards on motorbikes was nothing new at the campus.
“In terms of the hijab [rule], [students] must comply with the laws of the Islamic republic,” Moini told the semiofficial ISNA news agency on April 24.
The new restrictions at Iranian universities come after the dismissals of three prominent university professors in Tehran in January. The reported sackings stoked fears of a new purge against dissenting academics.
For years, authorities have been accused of ousting prominent university professors on political grounds. They have also jailed and prevented student activists from attending university.
Pressure on students peaked under former hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose administration forced dozens of professors to retire and banned scores of university students from studying.